‘The danger is in the neatness of identifications,’ warned the 23-year-old Samuel Beckett in his first published sentence, opening a 1929 collection of essays bearing the catchy title Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress. The work in question being Finnegans Wake, a volume of arid virtuosity described by Clive James as ‘full of nothing except writing/For people who can’t do anything but read’. By the time the Wake appeared in 1939, the high points of literary modernism were already in the past. It’s not easy for us today to share the intense excitement generated by a handful of highbrow authors among their cultivated readership ninety years ago; for those keen to learn more Kevin Jackson’s lively guide to modernism’s heyday comes as a welcome introduction. His book, pace Beckett, neatly identifies important episodes in a pivotal year, combining brief sketches of the talented protagonists with some shrewd evaluations.
Jackson admits that many other occasions could be said to mark the shift in sensibility from the pre-modern to the modern – the riotous first performances of Jarry’s Ubu Roi (1896) and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (1913); the appearance of early works by Freud and Einstein; the outbreak of